California Senator Kamala Harris had what many consider a boffo kickoff last week for her Democratic presidential campaign—a huge rally in Oakland, the most widely viewed CNN candidate town hall ever, and kudos from pundits. While Harris was everything her handlers could hope for—poised, polished, prepared—there’s always someone behind that kind of success, someone who helped plan and pull together the events, a strategist with a steely vision. In this case, it was a Texan with a political pedigree: Lily Adams, the 31-year-old granddaughter of Texas icon and former Governor Ann Richards, and daughter of former Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards.
Adams is Harris’s communications director. She demurred from talking about herself to Texas Monthly, saying she wanted the focus to be on the candidate, but, asked if she was a Texan, wrote that she sure was. “I was born in Los Angeles, California but we moved to Texas when I was 18 months when my grandmother was going to run for governor.” Adams says she grew up in Austin, Texas and went to Matthews Elementary until the family moved to D.C. for her father’s career.
How did Harris’s campaign kickoff go? Larry Sabato, the director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, told Texas Monthly, “as I tweeted Sunday, I’d say Kamala Harris has had the best organized and most impressive launch of the Democratic candidates who have announced. First impressions matter, though they don’t determine the final outcome. I actually learned about Lily Adams via Twitter. How? When I sent that tweet, multiple people responded that it was her doing. So credit to her. She certainly has the bloodline for politics.”
Harris’ rollout began with an announcement on ABC’s Good Morning America on Martin Luther King Day—apropos for one of the nation’s fastest-rising women of color. Harris then headlined a boisterous rally Sunday of 20,000 people in her hometown of Oakland; and then she appeared Monday night on a CNN town hall in Des Moines, which the network said was the most watched single-candidate town hall cable news event in its history. All choreographed with the help of Adams, who has a demonstrated flair for social media and has been in politics for years, working campaigns for the Democratic National Committee, as press secretary to Senator Tim Kaine, D-Va., as the DNC’s deputy communications director, and then as spokesperson for the Hillary Clinton campaign in Iowa in 2016.
When Harris was elected, Adams immediately joined her Senate office as communications director in January 2017, and has now moved over to the campaign, which has its headquarters in Baltimore. (Harris wanted to be closer to D.C. for her day job as a senator.)
Adams came to public notice in 2006 when, at 19, she spoke at her grandmother’s memorial service at the Frank Erwin Events Center at the University of Texas, alongside some famous names, like former San Antonio mayor Henry Cisneros and then-Senator Hillary Clinton. Ann Richards died of esophageal cancer at 73; one of her biggest admirers, former President Clinton, spoke at the state capitol where Richards lay in state.
But Adams actually first got the public spotlight when she was a toddler—she was famously held onstage by her grandmother and mother after Ann Richards gave the speech at the Democratic National Convention in 1988 that would make her a national figure. “Poor George, he can’t help it, he was born with a silver foot in his mouth,” said Richards of GOP presidential candidate George H.W. Bush in a quip that would resonate for years. Adams was featured in her grandmother’s speech, too. “I’m a grandmother now,” said Richards. “And I have one nearly perfect granddaughter named Lily. . . “
Richards went on to use her feelings about Lily as a metaphor for the future—and to remind viewers of the changes the future governor had seen in society, especially progress in fighting discrimination against African Americans, Latinos, and women. “I think of all the small victories that have added up to national triumphs. And all the things that never would have happened and all the people who would have been left behind if we had not reasoned and fought and won those battles together. And I will tell Lily that those triumphs were Democratic Party triumphs.”